The European Championships' gradual and often reluctant expansion over the years means this is only the third time Poland make an appearance in the tournament, after first qualifying for the 2008 edition. For a side whose heady days were in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, when they finished third twice in the FIFA World Cup, it is a rather misleading stat due to the fact that the Euros, until 1976, were played as a knockout-only tournament between the Top 4 sides from qualifying.
The current edition in France is the culmination of the expansion since, with 24 sides making it to the main draw, and presents Poland with their best opportunity yet, of making it past the first round for the first time ever. The 2012 edition, with the pressure of playing in front of home crowds, saw them gain direct qualification as the co-hosts, followed by an early exit as they finished rock-bottom in their group.
Adam Nawalka, midfielder during those halcyon years in the ‘70s, and member of the Team of the FIFA World Cup in 1978, has since taken over as their manager, and has fashioned a revival following their failure to qualify for the 2014 World Cup.
In a memorable qualifying campaign that included their maiden defeat of rivals Germany in Warsaw, Poland gained direct qualification as the Group runner-up, just a point behind the World Champions.
Led by Robert Lewandowski, whose 13 goals put him at the top of the continent in the qualification tournament, Nawalka’s side have delivered time and again in crunch fixtures over the past two years. Playing a possession-heavy style of football, with a powerful, attack minded midfield seamlessly melding with the strike duo up front, Poland finished atop the goal-scoring charts with 33 goals from 10 games, 9 more than table-toppers Germany, who they face once again in the group stages, along with debutantes Northern Ireland and 2012 co-hosts Ukraine. On form, their high-stakes clash against the Germans at the Stade de France on 16 June could well decide the winner of the group.
Lukasz Fabianski has finally found a permanent place in goal, as Poland’s No.1 for the tournament, after a series of excellent performances in the qualifying phase. He’s set to keep out Wojciech Szczesny and 36-year old Artur Boruc.
The defence wears a settled look, led by the industrious Kamil Gilk, for whom this represents a significant milestone, after being dropped for the 2012 edition at home. While Michal Pazdan is most likely to be centre-back pairing, the rest of the defence is set to be shuffled over the group stages, what with Northern Ireland’s physicality all too well-known from the qualifying phase. Lukasz Piszczek, just voted the right-back of the season in the Bundesliga, would be a key presence across the length of the pitch, with his ability to deliver accurate crosses to the tall strike pairing up top.
The midfield is spearheaded by 26 year old Grzegorz Krychowiak, whose presence at the centre of Sevilla’s midfield led them to consecutive Europa League titles and a place in the La Liga’s team of the season in 2014-15. Krychowiak occasionally makes runs forward, even scoring during the qualifying campaign against Ireland. Krzysztof Maczynski, who played a stellar role in the later stages of the qualifying campaign, would be racing against the clock to regain match fitness before the opening fixture against Northern Ireland.
Poland’s attack has a dual sense of assurance and intrigue about it, with Lewandowski’s form the best it’s ever been for his country, in partnership with Arkadiusz Milik, for whom this could well be the platform to announce his arrival at the big stage. Nawalka’s search for a working formation has led him to play two strikers up top, a rarity in a field filled with lone front men. And yet, on a whim, they could switch to a setup with a traditional No 10, with Piotr Zielinski waiting in the wings.
Among their biggest areas of concern, are the twin holes left by winger Pawel Wszolek and left back Maciej Rybus, and over-dependence on the right wing could be made harder by ex-captain Blasczykowski’s form of late. Much would depend on his link up play with Piszczek, as they look to continue their rich goal-scoring form.
Poland start off against tournament debutantes Northern Ireland, a fixture they must win to ease pressure ahead of the clash against Germany. With the field expanding to 24 and opportunities for the four best third placed sides to progress into the first ever Round of 16 in this tournament, exiting from the group stages would be harder than getting through. Anything less a quarter-final berth would be an embarrassment, considering how well it has all come together over the qualifying phase.
Updated Date: Jun 10, 2016 18:12:03 IST